Sam Hairston was so close to two of his high school football teammates in Florida that the trio came to the University of Houston together in the late 1990s to play for the Division I school.
"He was like the brightest smile in any room. The guy had the prettiest, whitest smile and never had a bad day," said Patrick Boatner, who was recruited to the UH program with Hairston and Jeremy Griffith from Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "He was the glue who held people together and brought people together."
Such memories became even more important to friends and relatives this week because Hairston, a decorated soldier and 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper, died in combat on Tuesday.
Sgt. 1st Class Samuel C. Hairston, 35, was fatally wounded in Ghazni, Afghanistan, when his unit came under enemy small-arms fire while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
He was remembered by fans and loved ones as a hero on the battlefield as well as the football field.
In a statement, UH Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades expressed deep sadness as well as condolences to Hairston's relatives and friends.
"Sam was not only a valuable member of the Houston family but an American hero," Rhoades said. "He is an inspiration to all of us and will always be remembered as a great Cougar."
At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and on football scholarship at UH, Hairston was a four-year letterman from 1997 to 2000. He played linebacker for his first three seasons then switched to defensive end as a senior.
According to the UH athletics department, Hairston competed in 42 games and started in 13. He posted 55 tackles with four sacks, an interception and fumble recovery.
Kim Helton recruited Hairston, Boatner and Griffith during his run as UH's head football coach from 1993 to 1999 when the school "had improved their facilities where they were competitive recruiting out of state," he said.
Now retired in Florida, the coach remembered Hairston as a student-athlete with an "infectious smile" who is "worthy of being mentioned in a place of honor."
"He was a young man who had really tremendous ability to make everybody like him," Helton said. "I'm very proud of him. It's a sad ending and you wish it hadn't happened. He was a man of honor. ... I'm very sorry for his family."
Like his father
Boatner, who also is 35 and now lives in Baton Rouge, La., was signed to UH as a defensive lineman, then played as a guard and center.
He and Hairston - friends for more than two decades - became football teammates in middle school and grew up in the same neighborhood in Shalimar, a Florida Panhandle community near Fort Walton Beach. They graduated from UH together in the spring of 2002.
Hairston received a bachelor's degree in economics.
After the ceremony, Boatner was surprised to learn that his friend, the son of a serviceman, aspired to follow in his father's footsteps.
"He said: 'I'm going to join the military. I want to be in Special Operations,'?" Boatner remembered. "It caught everyone - all of his friends - completely off-guard."
Hairston joined the Army in 2003 and faced combat on multiple occasions. Though Houston was his home of record, an Army spokesman said the paratrooper had been stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., since his year of enlistment.
Children of the digital age, Hairston and Boatner lost touch after college when connections on Myspace broke down as friends migrated to Facebook.
They caught up with each other again in December 2006, in Memphis, when the University of Houston played in the Liberty Bowl.
"He told us he was going to re-enlist and he was sure that he was going to go back overseas. It was just what he wanted to do," Boatner said.
Earned several medals
During a decadelong career, Hairston received numerous awards and decorations including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
The soldier reconnected with college friends - many for the last time - when he served as a groomsman in Boatner's 2011 wedding. It was the final occasion for the groom to see his friend in person.
Hairston, a platoon sergeant, was assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team in August 2013.
"He was extremely committed and he worked so hard at whatever he was doing," Boatner said. "I couldn't be more proud of the guy. ... I miss him dearly, but he died a hero for this country."
Hairston's remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware late Wednesday and were expected in Fort Walton Beach on Friday, Boatner said.
The soldier's survivors include his wife, Army Staff Sgt. Tawana Hairston, his parents, three brothers and a stepson, Hayden.
Arrangements have not been released.